Monday, September 23, 2013

A loss for the atmosphere

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, climate change, argument

Jonathan Swift wrote, "You cannot persuade a man out of a belief that he wasn't persuaded into."

"Answer not a fool according to his folly, Lest thou be like to him -- even thou. Answer a fool according to his folly, Lest he be wise in his own eyes." – Proverbs 26:4-5 Young's Literal Translation

Let's take up the Bible passage first. It is akin to a koan, seemingly self-contradictory, and is best understood in the context of political disputation. The first sentence warns against letting your opponent (fool or not!) set the terms of the debate. For example, to answer either 'yes' or 'no' to the question, "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" leads you into a trap. The second sentence is wiser. It is best understood in a paraphrase: "Don't be reasonable with an unreasonable person." If you suspect your opponent is crazy, you must be crazier.

That leads us to the other quote. Cases of religious conversion are but one example of experiences that people describe in very emotional terms. The most frequent phrase is, "Once I was blind but now I see." This also happens in other arenas, and in particular in the science of climate change, this is what Anna Rose was hoping for when she embarked on a month-long odyssey with Nick Minchin, a retired member of the Australian Senate, to interview scientists and others engaged in the debate over climate change, global warming, or whatever you may call it. The journey was sponsored by ABC in Australia, and led to a program aired in April, I Can Change Your Mind About Climate.

Anna Rose is chair of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. As we find from reading her book Madlands: A Journey to Change the Mind of a Climate Skeptic, nobody's mind was changed. And as I saw at the ABC website, a poll of those who viewed the documentary TV program shows that few minds were changed at all. If anybody changed their opinion, it was probably in the direction of skepticism. Of 29,900 poll responses, 56% were either doubtful or dismissive of climate change ("Dismissive" alone was 48%) and 40% were concerned or alarmed. That leaves but 4% in the middle. This is to be expected. Even if a majority of people have no strong feelings about the subject, they are the least likely to watch a documentary with an argumentative format. The rest already had their minds made up, and probably watched to either cheer or groan as one side or another made telling points.

To tell the truth, from reading Madlands, I didn't see hardly any telling points made by the experts chosen by Ms Rose. It was clear from the outset that she was trying to bat way out of her league. She writes midway through of feeling that she was following the rules, while Nick was not. Well, of course not. He is a politician. From the beginning his agenda was winning over people who would watch the program, not answering any of the arguments made to him. He chose only one (formerly) respected scientist, and several more telegenic spokespeople.

The month of travel covered all the continents except Antarctica (I suspect ABC producers quailed at the cost of getting a film crew to the Ross ice shelf). Fairly early on, they visited the scientist most likely to make a dent in Nick's skepticism, Professor Richard Muller of UC Berkeley. A profound skeptic, Muller thought that the famous "hockey stick" graph of warming in the 20th Century was based on faulty measurements. Climate skeptic web sites abound with pictures of standard recording stations located near air conditioning equipment, or in the midst of concrete covered areas. Unwilling to believe NASA or NOAA or anybody else, Muller gathered all the data used for these calculations over the past century or so, billions of measurements, and had a team re-analyze them, eliminating the ones that were the most likely to be compromised. His team produced a temperature graph almost identical to the "hockey stick". He changed his point of view, at least to some extent. Prof. Muller now declares that the climate is warming at a surprising rate, and that our emissions of carbon dioxide are largely responsible: "…we are dumping enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that we're working in a dangerous realm."

Nick was not swayed. Maybe nudged just a tiny bit, but at that point, Anna should have seen the light herself, and called off the rest of the project. Muller was not one of her picks, but had a better case to make than any of them. The basic story is that Anna picked a series of reasonable and very qualified experts, while Nick picked primarily pit bulls. He didn't bother to try to convince her. He was aiming at the TV audience. The documentary provided him with a platform on which she had at most a cameo presence.

Madlands is her attempt to salvage something from a disaster. She makes point after point in the text, and in each case, I asked internally, "So why didn't you say that for the cameras?" It proved much too easy for her to be shocked speechless.

The climate debate is not about science. The science has been known for 150 years. I replicated Arrhenius's calculations more than 50 years ago. The modern refinement is to pin down feedback effects and nonlinear transitions. "Pin down" is not quite accurate. The greenhouse effect alone can account for at most a rise of 4°C if we increase carbon dioxide to 5-10 times its current level. That is bad enough. But recent (since 1980 or so) measurements indicate that changes in water vapor in the atmosphere, aerosol production, and so forth, might multiply greenhouse warming by a factor of between 1.5 and 4; the consensus is "about 3". That is the basis of the IPCC prediction of warming by a further 1.2°C to 4°C by 2050. Greenhouse effects alone would add less than a degree.

To effect a change in policy, one must convince policy makers, not just of the truth of your propositions, but that a cost-effective solution can be had, one that does not threaten to end their career. Rule Zero of Politics: "Where you stand depends on where you sit." Anna Rose's book and further work are intended to shift public opinion. She does, at least, understand that to turn a policy maker's stance it is necessary to change the stance of the constituency. Too bad it takes so long, because Rule One is "Moses in the Wilderness": it takes 40 years for the old generation and their old ideas to die out and a new generation to rise up.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The illusion of thinking clearly

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, thinking, logical fallacies

A few years ago I met someone at a reception. He told me he was a philosopher, and that his specialty was the fallacies of formal logic. I happen to know that there are 16 formal fallacies, which are errors in the logic of an argument. I also know, and had recently read a treatise upon, the informal fallacies, which are unknown in number, but there are more than 100 (the Wikipedia article "list of fallacies" notes 59). For some reason, this quite incensed my new acquaintance, to the point that I was concerned he may become violent (a common informal fallacy on his part!).

Winston Churchill said, "Even a fool is right once in a while." This caution alerts us to avoid the most common informal fallacy, the ad hominem attack, which we could describe as, "You must be wrong because you are a bad person", or, "…because I don't like you", or, "…because you are a [substitute your stereotype of choice]". Interestingly, this fallacy is not discussed in The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli. I suppose he felt is has been sufficiently treated elsewhere, a great many elsewheres. But he does discuss 99 common errors that are so common, so very common it is a surprise any of us can decide anything at all!

Dobelli is Swiss and writes in German; the book was translated to English by Nicky Griffin. Kudos to the translator. Many translations from German produce nearly unreadable English. Clearly, Dobelli has a smooth, conversational writing style which Griffin has captured masterfully. It is great fun to read.

I can't hope to comment on more than a few of the items discussed. I picked a few favorites:

  • Reciprocity, in the chapter "Don't Accept Free Drinks" – Dobelli calls appeals for donations that come in the mail with a "free gift" inside a "kind of gentle blackmail" (I'd call them extortion rather than blackmail). An allied principle is TANSTAAFL: There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. Depending on how much spending authority you have, the "free lunch" could range from sports tickets to a "free" vacation. Then there is all the "free" stuff offered if you'll spend 90 minutes listening to a timeshare presentation. It is good to learn to say, "I don't think I can afford your 'free gift'."
  • Confirmation Bias, in two chapters, the second being "Murder Your Darlings" – This has two sides. One is the increasing tendency for search engines, led by Google, to keep track of your preferences and to use them to rank the list of returns from a search you make. As time goes by, you'll only get "hits" that confirm your prejudices. That's why it is a good idea not to search when you are logged in to a Google service such as Blogger, Drive or GMail (or one such as Yahoo Mail if you search using Yahoo). Search as anonymously as possible if you want less biased results. The second side is the tendency of writers to dwell on themes that they love and to give short shrift to others, even if they are trying to discuss "all sides" of an issue. Arthur Quiller-Couch devised the motto, "Murder your darlings", meaning to eliminate the redundant text that inevitably fills your writing about those most-loved themes; pare those sections down to match the less-favored sections.
  • Induction, in the chapter "How to Relieve People of Their Millions" – This is a favorite of mine, based on an ancient scam. Someone who is lucky several times in a row may be considered extra favored or blessed, and if you get tricked by your own good luck, it can lead to a feeling of immortality. It also leads to unneeded depression when your luck turns. But it also explains why "financial advisers" invest each client's funds in a different collection of investments (Those who invest all funds equally are called mutual fund managers, and are more likely to have a modicum of honesty!). Here is a key datum: multiply 2 by itself 10 times, and the result is 1,024. Pick a yes/no question, such as "will the market go up or go down?" Send about 1,000 people an e-mail in which you explain why you think the market will go up in the coming week, and send another 1,000 an e-mail in which you explain why you think it will go down. After a week, it has done one or the other. Suppose it went down. Now send an e-mail to just the second group making a new prediction, again of the yes/no variety. The third week, e-mail just the 500 for whom you've been right twice, with a further prediction, and so forth. After five weeks, assuming you actually started with two groups of 1,024, you now have 64 people who have received five accurate predictions. At this point, ask to be paid for further predictions. Let's say they all agree (keep the cost low at first). Now things get complicated. After your next prediction, send an apologetic e-mail to the 32 who saw you "flub", and offer to refund their payment; send a self-congratulatory e-mail to the others, but don't lay it on too thick. You are likely to keep some of the ones who got the apology. Anyway, after a total of 10 predictions, you now have at least 2 people who think you are infallible! You can ask for stratospheric prices for your answers. Investment advisers are not so blatant about it, but by spreading around their clients' funds, they can avoid being wrong too frequently.
  • The Black Swan, in the chapter "How to Profit From the Implausible" – The actual fallacy is to think that unlikely events are less likely than they really are. For example, how likely is it that someone could throw a basketball over their house, and have it go through the hoop in the back yard? One in a million, or a billion? Yet there are at least two videos out there showing just this happening. One is shown a couple times a year on America's Funniest Home Videos on ABC. Professional statisticians tend to analyze every distribution as a "normal" distribution, even though very few natural phenomena follow a bell curve. For example, women's height is found to be normally distributed, but household income is not. Also, the daily change in a stock's price is typically analyzed as a normal distribution, but large changes are much, much more likely than such a model predicts. Dobelli claims that unlikely events are getting even more likely, and even more consequential, because our civilization is more strongly affected by events outside "the usual range", like a 100-year flood. Before we began building lots of fragile houses some 10,000 years ago, a 100-year flood simply meant moving camp to higher ground for a week. Now it means high insurance premiums (if you have flood insurance in the first place). Also, those who make big incomes don't work for others. Dobelli's advice is to work in an area where a big break can bring big returns, but to save and invest as though such a big break may never come. If it comes, you can profit from it, and if it doesn't, you will have provided for your future.
  • Feature-Positive Effect, in the chapter "Why Checklists Deceive You" – We notice things that are there (but not even all of those!), but it is very hard to notice what isn't there. This is the crux of the Sherlock Holmes story "Silver Blaze", where the important clue was that a watchdog didn't bark. Only Holmes would notice such a fact. Everyone else was busy about evidence they were able to collect, because it existed. Double-talk "explanations" about why something went wrong are solidly based on carefully omitting key facts in the midst of a blizzard of less relevant, but attractive, facts (a related fallacy). Dobelli tells of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. During its premier many wept. He asks, "Would we be less happy without [it]? Probably not." Had "the Ninth" never been written, we'd never know what we were missing anyway. In the same way, we notice nothing in particular when we are totally well. We really notice any disease or injury.
In a reference section at the end we find 50 pages of bibliographic information, which the author says could easily have become several hundred pages. There is a lot of "thinking about thinking" being written up in the literature. This book is the most accessible of them all in my experience.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Family drama with a wink

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays, humor, family relations

As writers the mother and daughter don't compete, they complement. Philadelphian Lisa Scottoline and her daughter Francesca Serritella write "Chick Wit" for The Philadelphia Enquirer. You know how it goes. Write a column long enough, and you can collect a few dozen into a book. These witty ladies have been at it long enough that this is their fourth book together. I don't now what other writing the daughter does, but the mother is also a mystery writer, with 19 titles so far.

'Nuffa that. Meet Me at Emotional Baggage Claim is a great read. One might say that Lisa and Francesca are following a trail blazed by Erma Bombeck, one of my favorite writers, though a generation earlier than Lisa. They write with the same pointed humor, but with even more warmth and joy. While their most frequent subject is each other, they discuss friends, pets, travel (with each other or with others), food, and emotions—they're Italian, so feelings worth having are worth having loudly.

If I count right, the book contains 73 articles. Short ones of 2-4 pages. That made it very well suited to the way I often read: squeezing in a few pages between other stuff, or even during TV commercials. A session on "the throne" is good for 2 or 3 items (don't tell me you don't take a book in there).

There isn't a lot else I can say. I didn't pick out a favorite essay, because it would be like picking my favorite day out of the last ten days of almost perfect early fall weather.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The reflected writer

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, autobiographies, writers

I find it oddly fitting, on this 12th anniversary of "9/11", to review the memoirs of a British subject who was interned by the Japanese near Shanghai in the 1940s, saw the only city he had known destroyed, and lived the rest of his life in an England where he never quite fit. His productive period began with his years as a widower in his 30s raising three young children.

Many years ago I read a book and a couple of stories by J.G. Ballard and found them beyond my reach, incomprehensible. Now having read Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, and Autobiography, I realize that Ballard's fiction brings us into the ways he coped with the overwhelming losses he had suffered. In one way he is not unique. Many were the expatriate children raised in the Shanghai of the 1930s and 1940s, who came to their teen years in time to suffer internment, who were daily familiar with the sight of the dead, who saw, and sometimes experienced, the appalling cruelties of soldiers trained in the centuries-old bushido ethic, for whom their own lives meant nearly nothing, and those of all others, even less. In another way he is unique. He learned to express what these experiences deposited in him.

Ballard's writing sold better in America and Europe than in Britain. The British of the 1950s and even to the 1980s were too stoic to accept writing that laid bare the emotions he was expressing, in his deceptively bland prose. That's what I remember of The Drowned World: imagery that swung from the banal to the horrifying, in writing so matter of fact that scenes I'd ordinary vomit out could slip in almost unaware. To someone whose favorite Science Fiction previously had been the Lensman series by E.E. "Doc" Smith and the Robot books of Isaac Asimov, one who subscribed wholeheartedly to Campbell's dictum to "present a tough problem and then solve it", Ballard's surreal emotional landscapes and apparently goal-less plots were beyond comprehension.

Ballard dealt in metaphor, and almost single-handedly wrought a sea change in the S.F. genre through the 1970s and onward. Few have been able to publish works as mysterious as his, but many have drawn from his example more rounded characters, more realistic plots—that is, plots more prone to surprising side channels and seemingly meaningless meanders—and stories that need not be placed in a deep future so the writer can get away with fantasy in the guise of SciFi.

I once childishly said to my mother that it seemed the Star Trek series was about colonialism. She retorted that no, it was about exploration and learning. Over time, I saw she was right. I noticed that the chief characters were well-read and thoughtful, not the mindless heroes of sword-n-sorcery nor the banally evil colonial masters of true colonialism. Ballard's experiences furnished him with material for decades of thoughtful analysis of himself and his fellows, to produce a science fiction that needed just a bit of "suppose this small fact were different, then what?" to bring about a new mental landscape for us to explore with him.

Now that I am a tad more mature, perhaps I can read his fiction and get more out of it. I can't wait to try. (Ballard died in 2009, and this is his last book, started soon after his terminal diagnosis in 2007.)

Monday, September 09, 2013

Small book on a large subject

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays, memoirs, religion, philosophy of science

He claims to be an agnostic, one who prays and studies the Talmud daily and keeps kosher. Now age 98, Herman Wouk has written novels that span three generations of readers. While he still can, he has written of his exploration of the boundaries of science and religion, based in part on three conversations with Richard Feynman, and a great deal of his own experience. In their first conversation, Feynman asked him in parting if he knew calculus. He confessed he didn't, and Feynman responded, "You had better learn it. It is the language God talks."

The Language God Talks: on Science and Religion is Herman Wouk's memoir of how his stories developed in the context of his own religious convictions, and the people whose influence meant so much to the way they came together. He confesses that all attempts to learn calculus defeated him. Yet he has persisted nearly a full century in learning the original language God talks, the Hebrew of the Torah and its ongoing commentary, the Talmud.

The Hebrew itself is not really the language of which he speaks, but rather the incisive reasoning behind these great books. As he imagines himself saying to Feynman in a fourth conversation that he wished had happened, study of the Talmud, and earlier the debates and reasoning that produced it, represent the mental recreation of generations of thoughtful Jews during centuries with no technology of entertainment, no telephones or TVs or iPods (I wonder what the great sages would make of Wikipedia, whether they would contribute to it enthusiastically, or shun it. Probably the former!).

There is more insight into what it means to be Jewish in this little book than in any other I have read, of any size. I look upon the continued existence of the Jews as the foundational proof of God's existence. As a prophet wrote (here I paraphrase), God chose Israel not because they were greater or stronger or better or more numerous than the nations around them, but because He desired them for a testimony to His name. While He promised repeatedly to bless Israel, this "blessing" has been rather backhanded: they have endured continual attempts to exterminate them, for more than 3,000 years. Indeed, the first mention of Israel outside the Torah is an inscription in Egypt, dated about 1210 BCE, announcing that Israel had been "totally defeated". That long-dead pharaoh Merneptah spoke too soon.

But Wouk is the great writer here, not this poor scribbler, and dwells for a third of the book on his fictional character Aaron Jastrow, whose sermon "Heroes of the Iliad" is included as a coda to the book. That sermon, which morphed into a meditation on the meaning of Job's suffering, is the core of Wouk's belief and a most powerful statement of the Jewish understanding of the delicate choreography of God and His people.

What Wouk says indirectly I will state more frankly. God's own writing, His Bible, states that humans, "male and female", are in God's image and after His likeness. And just as we begin as infants and grow through a long process, so does God! If you read through the Torah, the Songs and the Prophets with a view to God as a juvenile, growing to maturity, you can reliably sort the books in time. The great figures of Genesis, particularly Abraham and Moses, sometimes had to talk God out of doing something rash. The man for whom the nation is named, Israel, formerly Jacob, was so named because he "wrestled with God, and prevailed". This view will be seen as rank heresy by my Christian colleagues, but I think a Talmud scholar would understand.

Friday, September 06, 2013

When the church replaces God

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, religion, cults, brainwashing

About 11:00 PM last evening, I finished reading the saddest, most disturbing book I've encountered this year. After six hours of tossing and turning, I realized I need to review it and get a few things off my chest so I can put it behind me. The book, written by Lauren Drain with the help of Lisa Pulitzer, is Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church.

Lauren didn't want to leave WBC. She was 14 when her father, who had been making a film documentary about Fred Phelps and his little congregation, became a convert and moved the family to Topeka, Kansas to live on "the block", as the collection of houses surrounding the sanctuary building is known. It was a rough transition, but over time she devoted herself wholeheartedly to WBC and its ways. Hers was the first family to join since the 1970s.

WBC consists mostly of descendants of the pastor, Fred Phelps, and their spouses and children. He started the congregation as a young man, and there were lean years, but he put himself through law school, and later many of his extended family became lawyers also. They became Phelps Chartered and got rich litigating civil rights cases. Although tithing is expected (demanded and enforced) of all members, the church is awash with money from the PC firm members' tithes.

Although in most ways Lauren was warmly accepted by a number of Phelps girls her age, she learned that she would never quite match up or catch up to them. They had been raised in the WBC way, which means doing every single little thing the pastor's way, as enforced by his leading daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper (Phelps females don't give up their names upon marriage, but hyphenate or simply keep their name). To a member of WBC the pastor's word is law, and Shirley is considered the spokesperson of the Holy Ghost. It seems there is no Son of God in their theology, perhaps because the pastor's sons are all rather passive, and those who aren't have left the congregation.

Most of the book details Lauren's struggles to fit in and to comply with the extreme demands of WBC and even more extreme demands of her father. Steve Drain comes across as a real nutcase. He is highly intelligent and creative, but he is clearly so emotionally insecure he has to rigidly enforce his control over every aspect of his family members' lives. In that he resembles his mentor, the pastor.

Lauren loved picketing, and felt a thrill of self-righteousness whenever she and her fellow picketers were scolded or reviled by passers-by or counter-protesters. Of course, she didn't think of it as self-righteousness at the time. She had been taught that only WBC members, in good standing, who had a near-perfect and sinless life had any chance of going to heaven. Perhaps a few others might be among God's chosen, but only if they were actively speaking out against America's corruption and tolerance of homosexuality.

Ah, the "fag" issue. The church's web site is titled God Hates Fags. Fred Phelps is a high-performing person, a real straight arrow, an Eagle Scout, admitted to West Point at age 17. He visited the campus once, then almost immediately rejected the notion of attending and managed to struggle through two or three lesser schools to complete a degree. His extreme anti-gay activism dates from this time, though it became even more extreme when the Gay Rights movement got under way in the 1970s. Lauren reports the known facts, including that if "that weekend at West Point" is ever mentioned by an interviewer, Phelps reacts violently and terminates the interview.

I have read items by a few folks who speculate that he had some kind of homosexual encounter at West Point, and most think he is secretly gay. I think it more likely that he became the "designated victim", to use a term familiar to boys who attended a boarding school. He probably got a thorough reaming out. And it is likely that he became terrified by his own reaction to the activity. Maybe and maybe not. The fact remains that he is emotionally insecure, and in recent years he has become frankly insane.

By the age of 21, after seven years in Topeka, Lauren was working as a nurse. She could see a strong double standard of performance, depending on whether you were a Phelps. But she kept that to herself. However, at church Bible studies, she wanted to know what various Bible verses meant. Not only the tiny collection of verses on which WBC activities and attitudes are based, but all of them. At first Shirley and others might try to explain, but at one point she began asking question like this: "Why do we tell people to repent, when we know it won't do them any good? They are already destined to hell." She was scolded and intimidated for asking such questions, and they intimated that she might go to hell for being "divisive".

The WBC heaven is going to be populated by Phelpses, and hardly anyone else. Sounds like a lonely place. Lauren had already seen several banishments, and then she experienced it herself. WBC cannot tolerate independent thinking, and she was out. Her parents disowned her. After work one day at her nursing job, her father gave her 3 hours to pack, then drove her to a hotel where he'd booked her a room for a couple days. That was that. It was near the end of 2007. In the years since, she has had to learn life skills that are denied to those "on the block". She tried to stay in some kind of contact with her parents, but now hasn't spoken to them for a few years.

Amazingly, she remains a spiritual person. Many would reject God along with the church. She has not. Helped at first by a boyfriend's mother, she learned a new way to understand the Bible and God's ways. Lauren is in the early stages of building a new life with a new understanding of herself, society, and God. Her closing words are, "I don't believe that God rejoices in tragedies, calamities, disease, pain and grief. In my faith, He has better things to do."

Amen. The two Testaments contain more than 30,000 verses. Most Christian traditions emphasize a message that is backed up by 2,000 to 3,000 verses. The strict WBC theology relies heavily on about 100 verses, and twists another thousand or so to fit, while ignoring the rest. The god of WBC is not the God I believe in, not the God that Christians and Jews know from our Bible.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

A bibliophilic thriller

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, crime, books, libraries

The urge to collect is oddly human. Few other animals collect objects, and those that do, such as nesting birds, do not maintain permanent collections, nor become hoarders. What is the difference between a hoard and a collection? The index. Thus, libraries and museums result from turning hoards and accumulations into collections.

Huge industries subsist and even prosper from the urge to collect. Interestingly, the priciest objects, in monetary terms, are those that have no other value except as something collected. Fine art is at the top of the scale. A somewhat distant second is rare books and manuscripts. I wonder if the reason that a unique book sells for less than a unique painting or sculpture is that it has a use: you can read it, and the books that command the highest prices are those nobody would read. I just checked "first edition" on eBay and sorted by price. There are 7 items, out of about a million, with an asking price of $950,000 or greater. All for books you wouldn't be obtaining for reading purposes.

Even in bad times, collectors spend a lot, and in the worst of times, the wealthiest collectors continue to spend, unfazed by the poor economy. Some spend more, hoping for bargains as people who are running out of money auction off their treasures. Thus, the most lucrative period for book thieves was the Great Depression of the 1930s. A particular theft, of a nearly unread book, in 1931 led to a sea change in the attitude of librarians and law enforcement about book theft. Unraveling the case cracked open a ring of book thieves and crooked dealers, the most notorious up to that time, as chronicled in Thieves of Book Row: New York's Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped it, by Travis McDade.

Edgar Allen Poe lived only 40 years, and was an active author for about 22 years: his first publications were poems, from 1827, and his first prose story was published in 1832. His second published poetry collection, a tiny volume really, was Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems, in 1829. The edition of 400 was poorly received, and most were discarded unsold. Fewer than twenty copies survive, but the most celebrated has come to be a copy that made its way to the New York Public Library, via the Lenox Library, upon its opening in 1911. Ignored for 20 years, and protected by security practices that were exceptional for the times, it was nonetheless stolen in January 1931, whence began a hunt that crossed several state lines, though the book itself did not.

The book itself is inconsequential. Thieves and crooked book dealers (in the 1920s and 1930s, that term was a redundancy) know that it isn't worthwhile stealing the rarest, most valuable books, because every copy is well known, so to whom can you sell it without being arrested? A book having between 10 and 100 or so known exemplars is a safer target, and worth the trouble of bleaching or otherwise erasing the library marks (there are always library marks, even in this era of electronic 'tattle tape' protection systems).

And why steal from libraries? It is a great deal safer than stealing from a personal library, because libraries are public! Turn-of-the-Century America was in the midst of a shift in rare book possession. Prior to about 1900, a bibliophile could amass a costly book collection, and might sometimes sell some, but more usually, his (very rarely, her) heirs would auction the estate through an established book house. The book dealers were used to selling and re-selling the same book as it passed from private collection to private collection. The notion of establishing a legacy, and of endowment, began taking hold in late Victorian times, however, and the book collectors' heirs were more likely to donate the books to a major library. Perhaps the collector, upon finding no heir who loved books as he did, would will them to a library. Once there, they were typically there forever.

Of course, libraries weed out their stacks periodically, but do not discard their rarities. Those are intended to remain for eternity, for the benefit of scholars. So by about 1920, book dealers were faced with a thinning supply of rare, and thus pricy, books. A few began to commission thefts. Other thieves took note, and got into the book "business". Before long, any dealer who remained in business had learned not to inquire too closely into the source of a box or bag of books at very attractive prices.

Library "security" practices, being nearly nonexistent, allowed a brisk trade in these moderately rare books. Only a few libraries made much attempt to stem the tide. NYPL was one, with an effective system. But the system did have a few tiny holes, and a certain book thief and two accomplices must have thought the stars had all lined up perfectly when they were able to obtain the library's copy of Al Aaraaf and two other books of similar value, and get them out the door (down 3 stories and across a large, crowded, echoing hallway). The 3 books were soon in a safe owned by Harry Gold, where at least the Poe book sat until its retrieval many months later.

I found it hard to figure out who was "the man who stopped it." I find it a tossup between G. William Bergquist and Felix Ranlett. Seems it took them both. Ranlett was in Boston, at the outskirts of the book ring's activity. In the juiciest sentence in the book, McDade writes, regarding a related theft in Boston, "In the grand tradition of library theft, a person with little prior experience in the subject was assigned to handle the matter for the [Boston Public Library]."

Once the action returns to New York, Bergquist is at its center, so I suppose he is the one. Certainly, he engineered the turning of a certain Babyface Mahoney into a cooperating stooge, and the arrest of a certain Harold Clarke and eventually Harry Gold, who were behind the Poe theft, though the thief was Sam Dupree, in their pay.

It has been written, most famously by Doc Smith who wrote the Lensman books, that what technology can create, technology can duplicate or defeat. Tattle tapes and other electronic measures are the current weapons of choice in the arms race to reduce library book theft. A recent estimate is that major libraries lose about 5% of their rare book collections annually. That is about half what the figure was a century ago. There is a trade-off between the cost of better security systems, and the cost of just buying replacement copies. Most first editions sell in the range of a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Hiring armed security costs $100,000 yearly, or more, and you can replace a lot of lost books for that. The system most small libraries use costs $20,000 to install and set up, and a few thousand yearly to maintain.

Thieves is a joy to read. McDade has the rare talent to pack a book with facts and keep the writing enjoyable. The book doesn't look large, but it is densely set in 9pt type, so there is a lot there, backed up by about 400 notes and references. Well worth the reading.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Made stronger in his affliction

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, librarians, illnesses, memoirs

In 1972, I experienced three significant events. My wife divorcing me was the least significant, in the overall scheme of things. Next, as I count it today, my mother's sister's husband divorced her. Most significant, from a long-term perspective, was the story she told me, during a visit shortly after the other two, nearly simultaneous events. My uncle was a rough man, yet wonderful in ways. A geology professor and well-honored; a classically trained pianist who had taken umbrage at my guitar rendition of "Moonlight Sonata" (movement 1 only, guitar is only capable of 2-octave chords and the Sonata uses 3+ octaves); father of my biggest group of cousins and a great grill chef. Yet my aunt told of a peculiar affliction he managed to keep secret from everyone but her. She said that often, at the end of a day, he'd go a little crazy, stomping around for a while, and groaning or roaring. "Sometimes," she said, "he would hit himself, and even knock himself out with his own fists." She attributed it to self-hate. I knew the verse in Ephesians, "No man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it." I didn't comment, but marveled and remembered her words. I have had occasion in later years to know a stunning variety of people, and learned compassion for their afflictions. I learned that apparent self-hate is usually a distorted kind of self-love. I know people with several kinds of mental illnesses, and some whose symptoms were quite distressing and disturbing. But none I have met are as afflicted as my uncle, so far as I knew.

Reading Josh Harnagrave's amazing memoir has brought it all together for me. In The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family we learn of Josh's titanic struggle to live with Tourette Syndrome. His case is one of the most severe on record.

In the following I will use the abbreviation PwT for "person with Tourette's". PwT's experience numerous involuntary actions that are called "tics". A Tourette tic is, we learn, like a sneeze, but imagine every possible level of sneeze, from a silent jerk to a tiny "choo", all the way to something that seems it will blow your head off and can be heard a county away. Some sneezes we can anticipate, and perhaps stifle, or press our philtrim to stop, but others happen suddenly and without warning. Now imagine the smaller ones happening a few times per minute, and so on. A PwT may experience many smaller tics without noticing: grimaces, tiny sounds, rapid blinking and head jerks. The classic Tourette tics I read about many years ago are less common: louder grunts and shouts, even spoken words, seemingly picked at random from a common vocabulary of one-syllable words.

A side note at this point. The "travesty" program gathers all possible strings of 1 to 3 characters, including blanks and punctuation, from some moderate size text, such as a Shakespeare play or a short story by Hemingway. It arranges these statistically according to frequency of use. Then it randomly picks text snippets from this database and strings them together. The result is a piece of text that can be read aloud, is meaningless, but sounds like something written by that author. Many longer strings make actual words. Here's the interesting point. Travesties in English always contain numerous examples of the word "shit". The reason is simple. "sh" and "s" are the most common word endings, while "t" and "it" are very common word beginnings. Divorce them from the words they started with, mash them together statistically, and you get a lot of shit! (along with "st" and "sht" and so forth). Accidental occurrences of other popular swear words are not nearly so common in travesties. In addition, "shit" is one of the easiest words to say.

When a PwT is having strong vocal tics, if the sounds resemble words, they are likely to be words that are easy to say, and "shit" tops the list. Thus arose the common perception that PwT's swear constantly. Actually, they don't. A few who have more frequent vocal tics make such words mainly by accident. They have no more control over the sound than any of us have over a sneeze, once it begins. If a series of vocal tics is a series of swear words, the PwT probably has partial control, and is swearing his (rarely her) heart out, with good reason!

I won't attempt to summarize Josh's life story. Rather, two items stand out. Firstly, in his late twenties, he began having more violent tics, which began when he slugged himself, drawing blood. Throughout the book, he describes how he could sometimes control the tics for a short time, but this would be followed by a more severe series of outbursts. He had a kind of theory that a certain amount of energy had to be expended in tics each day, and it was better to have a lot of littler ones. Once he began having such dangerous tics, he became more desperate to learn to control them. He had learned that vigorous exercise seemed to quell the tics for a time, or perhaps he was channeling their energy into his iron-pumping motions. But this resulted in great strength, and he was getting seriously hurt. Then (the second item) he stumbled on an extreme strength trainer named Adam T. Glass, who taught him a different way to think about himself and Tourette's. In particular, he needed to think about motions, and which ones helped or hurt. Over time, Josh began to focus on breathing. With time and patience and effort, he gained a measure of control. Spoiler alert: Then Adam confided that he is autistic. Josh writes that it took a different kind of mind to see through what others could not.

This is not the end of the story. Today Josh is 35 or so, and has found that some techniques that once helped have become less effective, but by focusing on motions that help or hurt, has learned to modify what he does to retain some semblance of balance and control. In all this, I am amazed at the composure and support he gets from his wife. He and his family are Mormon, and at times in his life he was helped by his faith. He explains some aspects of Mormonism "from the inside". He is closer to an agnostic stance now, yet acknowledges the comfort faith can bring.

I wonder how my uncle and aunt would have fared if my uncle's affliction, which was probably Tourette's, were more appropriately dealt with. He had apparently learned to bottle up his tics while in the classroom or among us, but paid for it with damaging outbursts later. He lived to be nearly 75. I hope Josh does better than my uncle did. He certainly has a better handle on it than anyone had 40 years ago. His web site contains a blog and helpful links for PwT's. And you can find more about Adam T. Glass here.